Dr. Eric Durant: 2015 In-service: Getting Things Done

Some key takeaways

MSOE In-service presentation by Eric Durant
Wednesday 2 September 2015

Your attention and working memory are your key resources. Do not dilute them with busywork. Instead, have a system (electronic or not) that takes care of remembering what to do and when so that you can focus fully on getting your important work done.

This is the central tenant of “Getting Things Done,” (GTD) a bestselling book by David Allen.

People often have anxiety about their work stemming from a “lack of control, organization, preparation, and action.” (David Kekich) A good system lets you efficiently make decisions, avoids the wasted effort of needlessly revisiting decisions, and gives you confidence that you’re doing the right work at the right time. Many things routinely get in the way of this, including:

Many books on being effective in business focus at a very high level; indeed, it is good to work at this strategic level sometimes. Other books focus on important operational details of one’s profession (e.g., active learning strategies for freshman engineering students). GTD, in contrast, sits at a middle level – it outlines a system for implementing your strategy so you can be completely focused on the right operational task at the right time.

A failing of many tools that try to do this is that they are cumbersome and get in the way of the actual work you’re trying to accomplish, as when you spend 20 minutes trying to complete a simple task such as printing an attached file from an unfamiliar program. GTD strives to give you a process that you will trust and use automatically to focus on your important work.

Key concepts in GTD are:

A GTD system can be implemented in numerous ways including a paper day planner, special purpose software such as OmniFocus for Mac/iOS, or general purpose software such as Gmail with reminders or Microsoft Exchange/Outlook. What is critical is that you trust whatever system you use. Its job is to relieve you of the need to remember when the next action is for every task. If you don’t trust it to do that, you are not using a GTD system.

In my own GTD system, I use MSOE’s Office 365 Exchange Server and supporting software such as Outlook from my laptop, integrated iOS (iPad, iPhone) apps (Android options are available), and web access via https://outlook.office365.com.

In this implementation, “Stuff” consists of two things: incoming email and tasks. Incoming emails are in the Exchange Inbox and get tagged if and only if they have a next action. This also conveniently makes them show up as tasks; due dates can be added with a variety of software including Outlook. If an email is not tagged, it just becomes reference material and may never be looked at again; it is out of sight and out of mind. The other type of stuff is “pure” tasks that are entered as Outlook tasks (or via an iOS app that supports Exchange’s Task feature, etc.). These are used to capture actionable items in the system so that mental effort does not need to be spent remembering them.

A tip: either type of task can have its title edited by highlighting it and pressing F2 in Outlook. You need not be held hostage by empty or vague subject lines in tasks generated from tagged emails.

Handling attachments: Save them to Box if you might need to refer to them.

Another tip: Delete emails after you reply to them to avoid clutter when you search. You can tag your replies to make them next actions when needed.

If you’re an Inbox 0 believer, GTD will still work from you. But Inbox 0 is not needed to implement GTD with Outlook. The purpose of tags and tasks is to mark (and assign to the correct date) items that have associated next actions. Some believe that a drawback to Inbox 0 is that your email archive (which can be valuable for quarterly, yearly, and irregular frequency repeated messages) is not as easily searchable.